Revelation 2:1-7

Reading: Revelation 2:1-7
Ephesus was an important church — tradition tells us that John settled in Ephesus, and that he brought Mary with him. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is one that focused on the gospel of Christ rather than any specific problems with the church. Scripture tells us that Paul spent about 3 years in Ephesus — that he was nearly run out of town because the Christians were not buying things dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Scripture also tells us that Paul’s student Timothy became a leader in the church at Ephesus.

The message given to the Ephesians is given to a church that looks to me like it was the center of Christianity, following the destruction of Jerusalem. The last of the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus settled there, all of the big names preached there, and it was enough of a center theological knowledge that John writes to them that they tested those who falsely claimed to be apostles and found them false.

The Church at Ephesus is a church that is theologically correct. The Ephesians cannot be fooled; they were taught by the best and they know who and what Jesus is; they know the True gospel, and when they see a false gospel, they are able to name it as a counterfeit.

This passage speaks of a specific false teaching — that of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans are only mentioned twice in scripture, the second time is later in this chapter in the letter to Pergamum:

You have some there who hold to the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so they would eat food scarified to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (Revelation 2:14-15 NRSV)

These short lines, and a few sentences from early Christian writers is all we have to tell us about this group. Ireanius called them antinomians, and associated them with one of the Gnostic sects of his time. Justin Martyr said that they ate food sacrificed to idols; which I also got from reading Revelation. What I was able to find left me guessing who the Nicolaitans were; but, one thing stood out: The early Christian writers were clear that they took the name from the Greek deacon Nicolaus of Antioch, who was appointed a leader with other Gentile Christians in order to correct a problem that was forming due to having a multi-cultural church.

Just making the leadership multicultural didn’t fix the problems. The conflict between the different cultures in the church would continue. When Paul wrote his epistles, the chief false teaching he opposed was that of the Judizers. Paul spoke against those who demanded that Gentile Christians first give up their own culture, and become culturally Jewish. Judiziers were not able to separate their faith from their culture.

When I was at FUM triennials, I went to a workshop led by Eden Grace where we learned about cross cultural ministry. While we were in the workshop, she spoke of the mistakes made by well meaning missionaries over 100 years ago — specifically in the context of Kenya.

The original missions in Kenya were large compounds, and the people who joined the church were taken into these compounds to live like Christians. They built western-style Christian houses, planted Christian gardens the way Englishmen planted gardens, dressed in Christian clothes like Englishmen wore, and learned English culture as the culture of Christianity. Many 19th century missions did not separate English culture from Christian faith; and they taught English culture as Christianity.

Growing up American, but having an interest in cross cultural ministry, I’ve become aware that I must recognize that faith and culture are not the same thing. When I experience cultural differences, my culture is the one that feels right. I even want to look for proof that what I am used to is better — but when I’m honest, I realize that scripture does not really endorse European culture either, there are things in there that challenge us too. We all can make the same mistake the Jewdizers made.

One thing that I learned when studying Church history is that Heretical teachings come in pairs; there is the false teaching, and then there is another false teaching that forms while trying to refute the first false teaching. When people focus on correcting errors, instead of the truth — that focus reliably leads to another error.

Now, what error would come from Greeks rejecting the call to turn into Jews; the most obvious error would be to create a Greek Christianity that cared more about being Greek than Christian. The error would be to avoid questioning anything that was part of Greek culture — leading to people who claimed Christianity, yet would go to the pagan temple to buy meat scarified to idols, and perhaps even offer a pinch of incense to Caesar. I really think this is the most likely error of the Nicoliatan; that they Hellenized Christianity just as the Jewdizers Jewdized Christianity.

In I Corinthians 8, Paul seems to be writing to exactly this type of Christian. They rationalize their behavior by pointing out that they know that the Greek gods are nothing. There is the idea that openly participating in Greek pagan culture is ok, because they don’t believe in the gods that received the sacrifice. This is a convenient faith, it is one that does not challenge a person’s place in society — but, as Paul writes: “not everyone has this knowledge.” Paul urges these Christians to behave different from their Greek culture, so they will not cause others without their knowledge to stumble.

What is ironic is that if I am right about who the Nicolaitans were, then they and the Ephesians church had something in common; both were correct in knowledge, but somehow in error. Those who did not separate themselves from idolatry simply because idols are nothing knew the right thing, yet did the wrong thing, and they were able to justify it by their knowledge. The Ephesians are condemned because they “abandoned the love they had at first”.

When Jesus spoke to the disciples at the last supper, he told commanded them to love one another. It is said that people looked at the Christians, and said of them “see how they love one another.” Even when Jesus spoke of how we will be judged, Jesus didn’t say there was a theological entry exam for heaven, but instead spoke of the way we treat others. Loving one another, and acting according to love is a big part of what it means to be Christian.

One group was smug, and acted wrongly with the knowledge that because there is but one true God, none of the Greek paganism even mattered, the other group was able to tell which teachings were right and which ones were wrong, but ended up failing to continue to live in love. One might say their faith moved from their hearts to their heads.

Of course, I’d recommend Biblical knowledge, good Theology, and a good enough understanding of the gospel to recognize when somebody is preaching a false one. The knowledge and discernment the Ephesian church had was a good thing to have. I think the point here is that we cannot put knowledge over the love we are commanded to have. A smug superior knowledge can even become a justification for bad behavior; and right knowledge can be applied wrongly. Knowledge is good, but knowledge alone is not enough.

We must remember the love that we had at first. We might make mistakes, we may even be mistaken about something that we think we know — but, as Peter wrote in I Peter 4: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Remember, no mater how much we know, no matter how good we are at discernment, if we forget to love, we have strayed from the way Christ taught us to live.



The end of all things: I Peter 4:7-19

Reading: I Peter 4:7-19

“The end of all things is near.” These words spark the imagination; these are words that we all hear from time to time — and they are words that are easy to dismiss because we see that the world didn’t end every time that we hear those words. It is easy to argue how the world will end, and miss how much of the world really did end.

I believe that I Peter was written between the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, and the death of Nero in 68 AD; perhaps not surprisingly, this range of dates is also when Peter and Paul died under the persecution of Nero. Lets consider the Roman world in the middle of the first century.

At this point, Pax Romana had made it so that the entire shoreline of the Mediterranean sea was well connected. The winds were such that travel by sea was fast enough that one could travel from Rome to the ends of the empire in about a week — if you had to travel quickly, you could, though you paid for it by the discomfort of sailing.

While this letter was written in Rome, Peter and others in the community certainly had connections to Jerusalem and the temple. The Roman empire made it so that massive pilgrimages to the temple were possible. The temple was built to its current spender under a Judean king who was basically a client king to the Romans. It might not be pleasant to be occupied, but being under Rome had many advantages.

Caesar Augustus’s descendants were not nearly as great as he was; this is one problem with dynasties, eventually you get kings who are incompetent, crazy, or malicious. Caligula was, doubtless, all of these things. Caligula was assassinated by his bodyguards before he could destroy the empire.

Caligula had most of the adult male members of his family killed, because he saw other potential emperors as a threat to his power. For some reason he missed his uncle Claudius — most likely the reason was that Claudius was mocked by his family and kept out of the public view; uncle Claudius was not a threat.

Under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, things started getting better. Claudius was a hard worker, getting up long before dawn to focus on the needs of the Empire. He focused on improving transportation, building roads and canals throughout the empire; unfortunately, he married a relative, Nero’s mother. The historian Tacitus tells us that Claudius was poisoned by his wife, his food taster, and his physician when Nero was old enough to rule.

When Nero came to power in 54 AD, 10 years before the great fire, he started off as a good emperor. Nero was a student of the philosopher Seneca, and he had the great moral philosopher as his adviser. Seneca taught him to treat people humanely, whether they were slaves or free. Nero’s early reign was marked by reversing the harsher actions of his step-father. His first public speech promised to end secret trials, to eliminate court corruption, and to respect the Senate; and the first half of his rule greatly increased the rights of the poor and former slaves.

It did not take long for the hope people put in Nero to break down; in 58 AD, he had his mother murdered — and by 62, he started executing any nobleman he disagreed with. Not surprisingly, 62 is also when his adviser Seneca fell out of favor. As Seneca was Nero’s speech and policy writer, Nero’s tone and policies changed drastically. One might say that early-Nero’s rule was really Seneca’s rule.

In 64, there was a great fire that destroyed most of Rome. Rumors said that Nero started it so that he could rebuild Rome and expand his palace complex. Between the fire, and Nero’s killing of anybody who criticized him or opposed him politically, he lost the support of the Senate. Nero blames the Christians for the fire, and begins crucifying and burning them. Starting in 65, Senators were planning Nero’s assassination, and they even had members of Nero’s body-guard involved in the plot; and there is a problem, Nero has no heir, the family of Caesar has murdered each other until it was nearly extinct.

In 66 AD, there was a revolt in Judea. Nero sent Vespasian to restore order — this turned into a full out war that in 70AD completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem. While the Jewish-Roman war was going on, back at Rome Nero was assassinated in 68 AD. Nero’s assassination and lack of an heir plunged the empire into a civil war. 69 AD was known as the year of the 4 emperors, the first three dying in quick succession. Vespasian, who warred against Judea left his son Titus in charge and marched on Rome, conquering and looted Rome, and established his house as the next dynasty.

All things are coming to an end. If you were Roman, you were about to see the reign of the Caesars coming to an end. Before Nero, the emperor was from Julius Cesar’s family — but, the Senate was allowed to choose which member; now, the emperor was chosen by the military and served as a military dictator making Rome less democratic. Vespasian’s son Domitian would completely end the illusion that Rome was a republic, and the senate had any power. Domitian would also become one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian faith.

If you had any connection to the Jewish people and faith, the end of Jerusalem as a city and the complete destruction of the temple, followed by making the man responsible for this destruction emperor at Rome would have signaled an end of the world. If you were a Roman, who loved Roman institutions, and the stability Rome enjoyed, even when there were ineffective emperors; you would have lost something. If you were a supporter of the Caesars, you would have mourned their line coming to an end. If you supported the Republic and the senate, you would have mourned that they no longer had any power — that after the civil war all power was held by the emperor and the military.

Peter did not need great prophetic insight to see that change was coming; he only needed the ability to hear rumors, and guess truth from them. The Christian community was a scapegoat for the emperor’s problems; a fiery ordeal is a big eye-opener to the problems faced by the emperor. Perhaps the biggest sign that an institution has problems is the need to direct focus on an unlikely scapegoat. Peter couldn’t have been the only person who saw the writing on the wall.

Peter wrote some advice for the church as it was facing its members being publicly set on fire and burned alive — it might be good to listen to the advice given to a church facing a fiery ordeal even in this time and place where we enjoy comfort, and where Christian thought is discussed and considered at every level of public discourse.

The first thing Peter advises is how to act to other Christians. He advised that we keep loving each other, we keep being hospitable to each other, and that we keep serving each other. When the rest of the world is uncertain, and everything that once seemed safe is unsafe, Peter called the Christian community to be a refuge, and to look out for each other. After the great fire of Rome, many people were made homeless — what is more practical than love, service, and hospitality when people are displaced? Between the fire, a hostile government, and the disasters that were to come, this isn’t just about being nice to each other; this is about survival.

Peter also gave some advice about how to relate to the Roman Empire; in this case he advised that the community honor those who are punished by the government for their Christianity — basically, martyrs are to be honored. If somebody is punished for Christian beliefs or behavior, the person suffered just as Christ suffered — the person is a hero.

On the other hand, Peter told the community not to murder, or steal, or commit other crimes or even to meddle. Peter told this community of scapegoats to be on good behavior — make sure that when Nero sets you on fire, nobody can find any cause for him to have done so — not even meddling; which was reason enough for Nero’s family members and trusted advisers to be put to death.

The end of all things was near, and it came and went; but Peter gave advice that helped Christians survive persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the looting of Rome. The more people saw Christians suffering without any cause; the more people saw Christians loving one another, and being generous and hospitable, serving those who were in need — the more people joined the church. Without fighting back, Christianity would defeat all the power of the empire and would survive it.

Christ has given us the strength to endure all that the world can throw against us. We hope for the resurrection of the dead, and that hope is greater than any power that can be used against us. I don’t anticipate any fiery ordeal any time soon — but, I do anticipate opportunities to love, to be hospitable, and to serve one another.

I Peter 2:4-12 Building a house

Reading:  I Peter 2:4-12

Some parts of the Bible are more difficult for me to understand because of my cultural background. In the United States, we focus on the individual. When a group of people accomplishes something, we choose somebody to give credit to. Of course, there are places where individualism causes problems, and we are reminded things such as “there is no “I” in team — but, at the end of the day, if the team is successful, there is an effort to give credit to an individual.

As an example of our culture, a couple years ago National Geographic put out a documentary series called American Genius. I love documentaries, so I had to watch — and, the series started with “Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates;” which, not surprisingly was about the development of micro-computers between 1977 and the mid 1980’s.

I can say the show was fun, but I can also say that the line that they showed on the screen described the show perfectly: “This program included dramatizations inspired by history. Some events have been altered for dramatic purposes.” In the case of the first episode, I could see exactly where they changed history — but, instead of listing the details they changed, I’ll give the big picture. Every one of the shows was one personality vs another personality — every industry was reduced to two people — and in the case of Jobs vs Gates, they chose two people who were not directly competing with each other.

We all tell stories in a way that “alters events for dramatic purposes”, even when we don’t intend to do so; and one way we do this is that we exaggerate the role of a single individual — we give one person credit for everybody’s work, or we cast blame on one person for the community’s failure. We really don’t know how to think about a community. Do we know what it means to be living bricks?

When we look at a building, we don’t think of the individual bricks, but instead, we think of the whole that it represents. If we really think about what it means to be living stones, making up a great temple, we have to remember that if people are seeing stones instead of the building, something is wrong. For this metaphor to work, we have to see community clearly.

When I was a child in Sunday school, we were taught a little song written by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh:  (Song copyright by Hope Publishing.  The copyright holders graciously provide words and music on their website.)

I’m glad that I had this little bit of theological training as a child; the song is quite simple, but it gives a great overview of ecclesiology:

  • The church is not a building, but people
  • The church is not localized but worldwide
  • The church is not limited to people like me
  • The church transcends time
  • The church remains the church, even when its not at its best
  • The church is about praying in community
  • The church brings the good news of Christ to the whole world

We are living stones; we are part of the great structure that is the church; You and I share this role with Peter and Paul, with names that everybody remembers such as C.S. Lewis, or Augustine; and we share this role with billions of names that only God remembers; but if we focus too much on one brick, we fail to see the structure!

The church is the community that Jesus gathered — and it is much greater than we are able to see. Every one of us is very limited; we can only be one place at at time. We are also limited in that we can only travel one direction in time, and we can only go a little ways. Even people who travel for a living do not have the opportunity to obverse all people; and no matter how long our memory, our memory neither stretches back to the first generation of Christians, nor can we remember what will happen in the future. We are bricks, and as bricks we are far too small to see the whole building, the most we can see is those bricks that are closest to us.

Sometimes people talk as if there was the early church, and there is the church now — as if there is nothing in between. Usually, when people do that, it is because these two moments of time are easier to deal with than all of history. I recall at Barclay college, we did learn a competing view of the church that taught that he church became apostate, and thus was no longer the church, and at some point, God raised somebody up to re-establish the church — our professor Mark Kelly referred to this as the blink off, blink on theory.

This theory has a couple of problems, the first of which is that I am in no place to judge when the church was no longer the church. There are parts of the world where the church is aware of its history all the way until the days of the apostles. I learned that in the middle east, there are families who have been Christian since the 1st century. It is rather impressive to realize that there are Syrian Christians who’s families claim that their ancestors were in the church that Peter served. These families cannot remember a time when the church was not — it is the same as if they were asked to remember when their family was not.

Another problem is that if we want to set a time when the church became “apostate” the best time I can think of was when the apostles were still alive. When I read the New Testament, I can see that the early church was full of terrible problems, and that the apostles dealt with issues that I would not imagine in our churches today. I also can see that the early church dealt with putting faith in humans instead of God, and it dealt with personality conflicts and with cults of personality. Was the church already apostate when Paul was writing his epistles? If it was, how can we trust an apostate church to have preserved Holy scripture?

The truth is that I cannot really point to a time when the church truly lived up to its ideal. Us living stones are not always content to take our place in the structure. Sometimes we want to stand out — sometimes we want to be something much more than a stone; and sometimes we really rebel against the whole idea of holiness and community. The more I read Church History, the more I realize there is no golden age; but, the more I read, the more I realize that there are bright lights in even the darkest of ages. It seems like the church is always in need of repair, and there is always somebody there doing repairs.

To paraphrase the Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, people go to church to pray together; they don’t go to hear a lecture. Peterson wrote about receiving this epiphany in The Contemplative Pastor, along with several other things that he learned in during his lengthy ministry. Now, the American church model often seems to act as if people are gathering together to hear a lecture — and Peterson, being a Presbyterian, belongs to a faith tradition where preaching is a sacrament; perhaps even the primary means of grace — yet, even in the tradition that has the highest view of preaching, one of the most famously skilled preachers observes people come to pray together, not to hear a sermon.

Ultimately, I believe that the church is a community of the Kingdom of heaven on the Earth — and that it is more than a community, it is a colony. Jesus tells us that we are to be salt and light. The church might not be of the world, but it is very much in the world — and one reason the church is here is to improve the world.

We are a community that eats and prays together. We are a community with a shared belief in God, as revealed to us through Jesus Christ. We are a community with a long tradition of helping each other and caring for those who have needs. We are the church; that is the identity Christ gave us — and with God’s help, we can live up to the high calling that we be the Church.

I Peter 1:1-12 — Tested by fire

Reading:  I Peter 1:1-12

I am glad that we studied James before we study I Peter. I am sure you remember what James was like; reading James is straightforward and easy to understand. When you read James, there is no room for arguing what he means; it is a message without complex metaphor and without abstract arguments. James is simple.

James might be simple, but you also should have noticed that James is well thought out. Everything in James is consistent with itself. We should not mistake simple language for a lack of thought, it is a sign of genius when a person can explain something such as the practical implications that God created humanity in God’s image in language that a child can easily understand.

Now, compare James with the opening of I Peter. Peter writes with long, complex, sentences. The passage we read uses complex theological terms and full of rich and colorful metaphors. James was a book that would have been an excellent sermon read all by itself. I Peter is the kind of book where you can meditate on a single sentence for hours trying to unpack the implications of the teaching. Peter sounds remarkably like Paul.

The Sunday School lesson mentioned in passing that many modern scholars doubt that Peter wrote the epistle because of the complexity of the writing. Basically, they look at Peter’s background as fisherman, and they feel that Peter should express himself more like James, and less like Paul.

Tradition is however unified in naming Peter as the author — and, I find the modern argument unconvincing. I’ve met many people without the benefit of a college degree who are perfectly fluent in metaphor, and perfectly capable of using jargon. I am perfectly aware that in the decades following his call as a disciple, he’d have opportunities to study; I wonder how many times Peter might have listened to Paul teach. Scripture tells us that Peter and Paul were together in Antioch, and tradition tells us that they both ended their lives in Rome, executed under the authority of Nero. In my mind, spending time with Paul would be an education for anybody.

Traditional commentary tells us that I Peter was written from Rome between 64 or 67 AD. Nero would have been emperor for about a decade; the Christian community in Rome would have been almost entirely gentile due to a removal of Jews from Rome before Nero’s time. The persecution of Christians started full force in 64 AD, so the commentators believe Peter wrote soon after Nero starts using Christians as human torches.

I Peter is addressed to the exiles in Asia Minor; the list of places are in modern day Turkey. Whether I Peter is written to those who were exiled from Rome over a decade before, or they had just escaped the fires burning Christians in Rome, it is, like James, addressed to those who left a persecuted church for safety somewhere else. Like James, this is written to a refugee-church from a leader in the community that they fled.

I also think that it is fitting that this passage is what we are reading for father’s day. In I Peter, we have a spiritual father offering pastoral care to a community that has been scattered and traumatized. Nero’s persecution was especially cruel, it is something that was completely new to everybody. Unlike the persecution that removed people from the Jerusalem community, Nero’s power extended to the place were people went to escape; no sense of safety is possible. What does a spiritual father do for his distant children who are far away and likely afraid?

What Peter does is he starts by reminding them of the positive. He reminds them of God’s love for them, and the reality of their salvation. The language might be abstract, but it is a reminder that even in their dangerous and insecure situation, there is some security somewhere. Peter reminds the people who are in fear of their lives that their soul is safe in God’s love.

Now that I told you what I think Peter is doing, lets look at what Peter tells the refugee church:

  • God, our Father, gave us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • An inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (in spite of current suffering)
  • Protection and salvation
  • A revelation of faith
  • A place in story of Salvation

New Birth

I’ve learned the idea that we must be born again is both liberating and offensive. Some resist, insisting they were born right the first time and others embrace this language recognizing that they desperately need a new start.

I know this is silly to say, but there is no room in Christianity for people who don’t need a new life. It might not be my place to judge those who say they don’t need one, but I can say that the Gospel of Christ is only for those who do. The gospel is for those of us who find ways harm ourselves and our relationships, and who need help and a fresh start with even a new identity. Christianity are for those who say Sin destroyed my life, it harmed my relationships, but Jesus offered me a fresh start. I was once defined by my disease, but now I have a new life — I am Christian.


Christians have, as you can see, from the beginning believed that we will be with Christ in heaven. Jesus promises the disciples that He will prepare a place for them. Peter tells the refugee church that no matter what happens, they eventually be safe and secure in heaven.

Protection and salvation

In fact, Peter lets them know that salvation makes Rome powerless. Lets think about the gospel of Jesus Christ, one of the most important messages of the gospel is the one of resurrection, both the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will be raised up as well. Rome was able to slay the body, but they cannot touch the soul. There is salvation even for this life in the realization that no matter what is done, the people of Christ win; death is powerless to defeat us.

Faith revealed

Peter tells the people that through suffering, their faith will be revealed. It is often said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church. Nero and rulers who tried to end Christianity by killing and torturing Christians have found that their faith was stronger than anything that could be done to the body. Faith gave countless ordinary people the courage and the strength to face threats, torture and death.

Story of Salvation

Peter reminds everybody that God was working in the world before Jesus, and that Jesus was prophesied. Do you remember the account of when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost in Acts 2? When people started asking if the people were drunk, Peter quoted from the Psalms and from the prophet Joel to show that what was happening was God’s work. In Acts 3, Peter again tells of Jesus, and how Jesus was announced by the prophets, specifically citing Moses.

Peter reminds the community that fled persecution, and is either at risk, or facing it again that they have seen the hope of salvation that Israel had been looking for as long as they had been a people. Jesus was not sudden, or unexpected, but the prophets and the law anticipated Christ and the salvation He brought.


What do you say to a refugee church that is fearful because the place they ran is no longer safe? If you ask me, I’d have to admit that I have no idea. I cannot imagine what it would be like to face a Nero, nor what it would be to face the kind of persecution that is happening in places such as the Sudan or Syria. When I see people who are part of a refugee church here in the United States, I do not know how to do anything but thank God these people are safe now — and pray that our nation continues to be safe.

When Peter decided what to say to the refugee church who faced danger again he did something that that seems counter-intuitive, Peter gives a summary of what Christians believe. What does an abstract summary of Christian beliefs offer? Peter reminded the persecuted church of what they believe. Peter reminded them that there is hope, because Christ is greater than the worst Nero can dish out — Christ brought victory over even death.


James 5

Reading: James 5

I cannot hear the words of James 5 without remembering when I visited China. My parents and grandparents had moments in their lives where they knew what poverty was; my grandparents could remember the great depression, and my parents had a stretch of desperation caused by a shortage of work at the factory where my father was employed. I have worried about money, I’ve gone without doing things that I’ve wanted, but I’ve not personally faced desperate poverty.

I remember one morning, about dawn, I got up to take a walk, and I saw something that opened my eyes to a kind of desperate poverty. I saw a sidewalk covered with people who were waking up. I saw these people who spent the night outside walking to the place where they worked. I watched, and I realized that these homeless people had jobs, and that they put in long days of work, and yet they still slept outside at night.

This was in 2003, at that time China had a rapidly growing economy. Cities were building as fast as they could, and people from rural areas were flocking to cities to find opportunities. At this time there was a bit of a robber baron mindset in China. There were opportunities to get rich, and the government was not able to regulate nor enforce what people did. I was in China when some of the companies started getting in trouble for lying about what they were selling.

Some examples of what was done are: Fertilizer was added to milk and to flour, so that when it was tested for the nitrogen content, to estimate the amount of protein, it would test high in protein and sell for a higher price. The flour was sold as high protein gluten, and it was made into dog-food. Some pets in the United States died, and several brands of dog food were recalled. The milk was turned into baby formula, and many babies died.

I learned that one other scandal that was happening at the time is that when migrant workers would come to the city for jobs, they would go to the work site, and work week after week and not receive the pay they were promised. Somewhere, somebody would embezzle from the payroll, and the people at the bottom would go without. Those who were poor and desperate would have nothing they could do to get the money they were owed — they would just have to find another job and hope that this one would pay them. Part of the cause of the desperate poverty that I saw was that there were those who were quite happy to make themselves happy by committing fraud and robbing the poor.

I know that China is a special case, fraud is still rampant there; and that part of doing business is China is losing assets to fraud as suppliers cut corners and employees embezzle. I know there are many good and honest people there, but they have a problem policing those who steal.

I also know that we have no shortage of people in the United States who pine for the days of the robber barons when the rule of the day was: “buyer beware.” From time to time, I hear of the courts sorting out claims that a company has cheated its customers, or that they found ways around paying their employees. Now, I know that this happens here — and I know when it happens, there are a number of people who jump to the defense of the people who stole wages or cheated customers. There are a number of people who believe that acquiring wealth is virtuous, no matter how it is acquired, and that customers do not deserve protection, and those who do the labor are not worthy of their wages.

James really does speak to our culture — because many of us see wealthy people as somehow more virtuous than others. We somehow believe that they deserve what they have, and that they benefit society by being wealthy. It is common to call the wealthy: “job creators,” and even to see them as patrons to all those people who do the work that fills their pockets.

The truth is, there is nothing moral, or noble, or lasting about wealth. James is alluding, as he often does to the sermon on the mount. Matthew 6:19-21 tells us not to store up treasures on Earth where moths and rust consumes and thieves steal, but instead to store up treasure in heaven. Material wealth is just things; it is neither virtuous nor lasting; like everybody, I would choose wealth over poverty, but we must not choose it over integrity.

The Old Testament is full of condemnation against those who don’t pay their workers. The Torah commands that a laborer is to be paid right away, and his wages are not even to be held overnight. The prophets Jeremiah and Malachi both condemn the leading people of Judah for hiring workers, and not paying their wages. There is a sense that the poor were taken advantage of because they were poor and unable to take care of themselves.

Now that my eyes are open to how the poor are abused, I see that there are ways it is done, even here. It is expensive to be poor; because if don’t have money, you find yourself forced into more expensive options for various services. I am amazed at how predatory the financial services for the poor are. I wince at the thought that some people bring their paychecks to check-cashing places that charges a fee per check, and then charges similar fees to pay their bills. I wince even more that these places do not hide that they offer loans at an APR of several hundred percent — one of them advertises on their website that their rates are as high as 782.14%, and that they have fees that add 10% or more to the original amount of the loan. It is easy to blame people for making bad decisions, but this is an example of robbing the desperate; and one would need to be extremely desperate to accept such terms.

There is nothing virtuous about being the kind of employer who becomes wealthy while the employees go on food stamps to pay their bills. No matter how much people talk about the employer being a `job creator’, and the workers being `takers’, it should be clear who the taker is. There is also nothing virtuous about seeing somebody who is desperate, and figuring out how to take his spare change. There is nothing virtuous about seeing employees or customers as “revenue generators” — I know it is just business, and that business is about money, but we can never forget that people are people, and that God created humanity in God’s image.


James 3 — Blessings and blasphemy

Reading: James 3

Last month I started talking about James, and if you recall, one of the things that I brought up was that James really is talking about the practical implications of our belief that humanity is created in God’s image. On April 30, I talked about that images still have, and I gave the example of how people respond to our national image, the flag. When I review what I said on the 30th, I realize that I could many of the same things all over again; but, this is not surprising. The practical implications of humanity as God’s image is a theme throughout James so as we read James 3 we come to the part where James is really taking his congregation to task over the way they speak about human beings.

When we read this, we are reading something that very much speaks to a failing in our own culture. With the tongue, we bless God and curse those made in God’s image, from the same mouth comes blessings and cursing. I don’t know how many of you use Facebook; but I know if you do, you likely have no shortage of friends who will post blessing and cursing almost continuously.

Honestly, I’m not sure if it was a good thing for me to form a Facebook account and reconnect with old friends. I’ve looked at so many people who I’ve respected and who can quote scripture better than I can; and I have seen posts recommending genocide against Native Americans, suggested that murdering people based on ethnicity is appropriate, and suggesting that a class of people are rats, or cockroaches, or even poison.

I see the same people posting praise Jesus, and posting Bible verses, calling for prayer and showing that they are people of deep faith. I’ve learned that American Christian culture sees nothing inconsistent about this behavior. Indeed, I’ve even seen examples of blessing God and cursing God’s image posted by church leaders and on rare occasions even on official church pages. Until I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve not been aware at how much cursing and blessing comes from the same mouth. A person literally blesses and blasphemes God in the same sentence. If I burned a flag, nobody would think me a patriot — why would anybody think a person who cursed God’s image a Christian?

One thing that scares me is that no matter how much people say that words are just words, I know what it looks like when words become actions. We know how powerful words were when spoken by a charismatic German leader in the first half of the 20th century. Words that dehumanized lead to one of the most famous of all genocides, the Holocaust.

I’ve always found propaganda interesting; I wonder how somebody can present an argument in a way that leads to such extreme actions. I’ve watched or read World War 2 propaganda produced by Disney, by Mel Blanc, Dr. Seuss and by others; I’ve also seen and read some Nazi propaganda. One of the books I read is a children’s volume titled, in translation, “The toadstool”. “The toadstool” compares a Jew to a poison mushroom that is accidental gathered and is chopped up and cooked in with the food and poisoned the whole family. The moral of the story was that it only took a single Jew, just as it only took a single poisoned mushroom, to kill an entire nation. The Nazis also had political cartoons that compared Jews to a terrible rat infestation, and compared the Jewish solution to getting rid of the rats. These were just words and images that suggested that one population was not human like the rest of us, and we all remember what that lead to.

Shockingly, I’ve seen people make exactly the same arguments that the Nazi’s once did. I’ve seen political cartoons suggesting that a class of people is a rat infestation. We at one point had an image comparing a class of people as poison that might destroy our nation. I’ve seen Nazi propaganda recycled as people who bless God freely curse those made in God’s image. I know from the Holocaust what it means that the tongue stains the body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire from hell.

This has been a rather unpleasant news week. As you might know there was a suicide bomber at a concert in Manchester England. After this happened somebody asked the question: “How do people get radicalized so that they would do these kinds of things?” I’ve been thinking about this question, about the passage that I read, and about the other news stories that have come by me these days. Words are powerful. People are radicalized by words. These words that suggest that a group of people are less than human, that they deserve extermination is really what leads to such extreme acts. We talk about radicalization of some other group — but we forget what it looks like when people in our own culture are radicalized.

This weekend, I saw examples of what happens when our own people are radicalized — not extremists, not crazy people, but normal good Americans. As you might know, Friday was the special election for congressman in Montana. On Thursday one of the candidates, according to a witness, put his hands around a journalist’s throat, threw him on the ground and punched him. The journalist described it as: “you just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”

Having heard this news, the election suddenly became interesting to me — I wondered if a person could openly commit assault, without any apparent reason and still be elected for public office. The Gianforte campaign first claimed that the reporter grabbed Congressman Gianforte, but the altercation was observed by a Fox News team who reported that the campaign lied about it, and that the attack came without provocation.

The last day of the campaign, Congressman Gianforte received $100,000 in online donations — most of these donations were after, and apparently because he punched a reporter. He was never arrested for committing assault; though he will have to appear before a judge, and answer for his actions. When the votes were counted, Gianforte won the election, and in the victory speech acknowledged that his actions were wrong, and said he would not do it again.

That apology is all well and good, but I notice two things: people donated money because he punched a journalist, and a number of people gave this as something that made them eager to vote for him. He apologized before his trial, but after the election was over. The election showed that the good people of Montana find it acceptable to elect a man who openly assaults people. How could a pillar of society such as Congressman Gianforte, and so many of the good people of Montana become radicalized and decide that violence against a person because of his constitutionally protected profession was a right and reasonable thing to do?

Again, this is something that comes from the power of words. In February, the President named the press as the enemy of the American people. Now, this is alarming, not only because the first amendment guarantees the freedom of the press, but because I’m perfectly aware that freedom isn’t what a nation gives to its enemies — no, a nation works to protect itself from its enemies. These words are alarming, because they lead to fighting the enemies.

This phrase actually came up during Gianforte’s campaign — and when it did, the congressman pointed to a reporter and said: “We have someone right here, it seems there are more of us than there is of them.” The congressman said that this was a joke, but this joke was a public suggestion that a mob attack a reporter as the enemy of the American people. These words are alarming, because they are a call to violence that cannot help but lead to violence.

We must watch our language — the first reason is the theological one; that speaking of others in a way that does not recognize that they are God’s image is blasphemy against God. The second reason is a practical reason, words are a fire that spreads and brings more evil. Words lead to actions that will embarrass us and our communities.

James 2:14-26 Faith and Works

Reading:  James 2:14-26

Faith without works is dead; These words are pretty clear, and they are very important. It would be fair to say that there has been a great deal of debate about how we are to understand the relationship between faith and good works. This is a passage that many people must wrestle with, because it does not always fit comfortably with our theological views. James 2:17 was so challenging to Martin Luther’s faith that he declared James as contrary to the gospel, and he called it an epistle of straw.

The gospel that Luther speaks of, of course, is something that we can find in Paul’s writings. I could choose to read from a number of Paul’s epistles, but I choose to read from Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Jesus Christ, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  (Ephesians 2:4-10 NRSV)

When people think of Paul’s gospel, they often focus on being saved by grace, through faith — they often focus on how salvation is not of our own doing, and that we have nothing to brag about. This focus can lead us to doubt the focus that James gives to good works. One might fear that James by focusing on works makes Christianity about what we do, rather than about what Jesus did, and thus come to the conclusion that Luther came to.

It is not difficult to set up a narrative where Paul and James are at odds with one another. James is a leader of Jewish Christians, Paul is the apostle to the gentiles. When Peter behaved inappropriately at Antioch, no longer eating with the Gentile Christians, it was because James sent a delegation to Antioch. A friend of mine suggested that this implicates James a Judaizer, and thus that would make him Paul’s chief antagonist.

Of course I’ve mentioned before that I believe that the book of James is largely based on the teachings of Jesus — I believe that it is an early book, and that it is a witness to early Christianity. When I read the gospel, I notice that Jesus calls on people to behave in a certain way. The sermon on the mount, for example, deals largely with behavior — calling people to act in a way that most of us find challenging.

In Matthew 25:31-49, Jesus describes the Judgment of the nations, and when he tells the standards people are judged on, Jesus does not mention their beliefs, or their faith but the actions of giving food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner. James 2:15 echoes this when James asks: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them `Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead.”

Just as I know people who follow the extreme example of Martin Luther, I know others who look at things like this, quote George Bernard Shaw and say: “Paul is the great perverter of Christianity.” These people say they want the Christianity of Jesus, and they point to Paul as the origin of a comfortable Christianity that does has nothing prophetic to say to the culture it is in.

I of course am a traditionalist. My Bible includes both James and Paul; and I have to find a way to accept both as authorities. The way I do this is that I believe that both are true, and that choosing one or the other is a false choice. I also believe that Paul’s critics, and too often Paul’s supporters misrepresent what Paul taught. Perhaps Paul and James argued about what it meant to have a Christianity that grew beyond Jewish culture; there are hints of such arguments in Acts and Paul’s epistles, but I like having a tradition that has some room for argument.

One thing I’ve learned about the Christian tradition is that heresy is most often found in creating a false dichotomy. The Orthodox position is, for example, that Jesus is both God and Human. If you defend the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, you fall into heresy no less than those who argue that Christ is human and not divine.

I personally think of this argument about faith or works to be similar; if we choose one or the other, we lose something that is important to Christianity. If we reduce Christianity to a list of rules, customs, and behaviors, we risk turning Christian into an adjective that describes people who behave according to that code. If we say that Christianity is only a system of beliefs, but has no relationship to behavior, we risk becoming a group that discusses what we believe about the afterlife, but has little to offer for this life.

Personally, I think this argument would not have gotten off the ground if we didn’t focus on verses and short quotes, and instead looked at every epistle as a whole. Remember in James 1 when James said: “Let nobody say God is tempting me”, James reminds us that we are tempted by our own desires — I would say even our own thought patterns, and in the passage we read today, James tells us that Faith is shown by our works.

When I read Paul’s epistles, I see something rather striking; Paul tells us that Christ came to save us from our sin. This is very different from being saved from the consequences of sin, or to be saved from hell; to be saved from sin is to be saved from the power that it has over our lives.

There is something about sin that kills. Sin kills our relationships, sin kills our hope, sin is a destructive force in our lives. If we are truly saved from sin — then we would be truly saved from the destructive thought processes and behaviors that do so much damage. Paul’s salvation isn’t about what we do — but, this salvation is something that changes us — and it is as much of a change as being resurrected from what killed us.

Observe from the passage we read today, James tells us: “I will show you my faith by my works.” What we believe is powerful. What we say and do comes from the way we think — and the way we think comes from what we believe. If we say that we believe one thing, yet we act in a different way, how strong is that belief? I know that habits die hard — I know that Paul wrote of struggling against habits, but what we do and what we believe are linked together. Works most consistently come out of Faith — and a faith that one never acts upon isn’t much of a faith at all. Faith without works is indeed dead.